140 federal prisoners have been ordered released in Minnesota

Published 9:54 am Thursday, October 8, 2015

By Randy Furst

Minneapolis Star Tribune

Federal judges have issued orders to release 140 prisoners in Minnesota as part of a national program to reduce the long sentences of nonviolent drug offenders who have filled federal prisons to overflowing.

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Fifty federal prisoners will be released in the state on Oct. 30 and another 25 will be released in November, said Chief U.S. District Judge John Tunheim.

“I think it reflects a change of thinking for many of us in the criminal justice system that the sentences imposed on nonviolent drug offenders has been too lengthy,” Tunheim said Wednesday.

About 6,000 prisoners will be released nationally, beginning at the end of the month. Of that number, about a third are undocumented immigrants and are expected to be deported.

The people being released have been serving sentences for drug crimes, not for violent offenses, said Kate Menendez, chief of training for the local Federal Public Defender’s office.

“Federal supervised release is generally quite strict with requirements that clients report regularly to their probation office and submit to random and sometimes frequent drug testing,” she said.

The release has been planned for a year, spurred by the U.S. Sentencing Commission, and most of those getting out have already served substantial sentences.

Putting it in context, the Justice Department says federal prisons release between 45,000 and 50,000 inmates every year as their sentences expire.

The average sentence of prisoners affected by the new federal program is 10 1/2 years and the reduction will bring the average time served to 8 1/2 years, the Justice Department said.

According to federal figures, 150 motions have been filed seeking sentence reductions in Minnesota by the Federal Public Defender’s office, and 243 motions have been filed “pro se” by prisoners themselves, without an attorney. Sixty-seven motions for release have been denied by federal judges locally.

“Considering the fact that the United States has a greater percentage of its citizens incarcerated than any other country in the word, releasing in essence these low-level drug offenders is a very good thing,” said Charles Samuelson, executive director of the American Civil Liberties Union of Minnesota.